When Kevin Walters was handed the reins of the all-conquering Queensland Maroons late last year, many rugby league pundits found themselves asking ‘Why Kevin Walters? How is he qualified to coach the greatest team of this generation?’. His supporters pointed to his experience as head coach of the Catalans Dragons in the Super League, and his time spent as an assistant at the Melbourne Storm and Brisbane Broncos. But what if Kevin Walters earned this job long before he took up his various coaching positions? Long before he’d even hung up his boots? What if Kevin Walters earned his stripes the first time he stepped onto Seiffert Oval in 1987, and unwittingly into the centre of the rugby league universe?
Well, that escalated quickly
There’s no doubt that Canberra Raiders fans of 1987 would have believed they were witnessing history that year. Here was a team who had yet to qualify for a finals series, but had a feeling that they were on the brink of something special. They had a new coach in Wayne Bennett, and a host of talented young players that would make their debuts and later become stars; players like Laurie Daley, Kevin Walters and Glenn Lazarus. They’d go on to finish runners up that season, losing the Grand Final to Manly, and this would be the beginning of a decade of dominance for the Green Machine – a period throughout which they were rivalled only by fellow competition newcomers, the Brisbane Broncos. However, history will show that the 1987 Raiders were special for reasons far beyond their success on the field. The 1987 Raiders, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, were to shape the way that rugby league would be played, almost 30 years into the future. The 1987 Raiders, it turns out, are the centre of the rugby league universe.
We need to talk about Kevin
Now, in order to explain how the 1987 Raiders are the centre of the rugby league universe, we first need to discuss that other famous Kevin. We’re talking, of course, about Kevin Bacon, the centre of the Hollywood universe.
In 1994, Kevin Bacon reportedly told an interviewer that he’d worked with everybody in Hollywood, or somebody who’d worked with them. Subsequently, a group of college students attempted to prove that Kevin Bacon was the centre of the Hollywood universe, by demonstrating that every Hollywood actor could be connected to Bacon via the movie roles of different actors in less than six steps. This became something of a cultural phenomenon, and thus established a framework for finding the centre of a particular world.
At this point you may have already pieced together what this has to do with the 1987 Raiders. In short, as it turns out, as we near the 30 year anniversary of that great Raiders team, every single current NRL coach is connected to the 1987 Raiders, within six degrees. Every. Single. One.
We’ll begin by identifying all the coaches who were actually a part of the 87 Raiders. We have the Australian coach, Mal Meninga, Queensland coach Kevin Walters, New South Wales coach Laurie Daley, and Melbourne Storm coach Craig Bellamy. We also can’t forget that the 87 Raiders were themselves coached by current Broncos coach, Wayne Bennett. That’s five current coaches covered, and we’re just getting started (from here, if you have trouble following, you can use the easy-to-read flow-chart below).
When we look at coaches who are separated by just one degree, we get a whole stack more. Let’s start with Craig Bellamy. Bellyache alone has worked with four current NRL coaches during his tenure at the Storm. Warriors’ coach Andrew McFadden played under him in 2004-05, Souths’ coach Michael Maguire was an assistant coach there from 2005 until 2009 when he left to coach Wigan, and Brad Arthur had a stint as an assistant to Bellamy from 2007-10. The fourth is Newcastle coach Nathan Brown, who served a year under Bellamy last season doing video work and scouting assessments.
Through Laurie Daley we get Manly Sea Eagles coach Trent Barrett, who served as his assistant for New South Wales in 2013. Then, onto Mal Meninga, who had Neil Henry as his assistant with the 2006-09 Maroons. Mal Meninga also played alongside current Raiders coach Ricky Stuart in 1988, captained him from 1989 until Mal’s retirement in 1994, and even coached him in 1997-98. Then, via Stuart, we have connections to a further three current coaches. Stuart coached current City and Country Origin coaches Brad Fittler and Craig Fitzgibbon at the Roosters, Fittler from 2002 to 2004, and Fitzgibbon from 2002 to 2006. Then, Stuart moved to the Cronulla Sharks, where current coach Shane Flanagan was his assistant from 2007 to 2010.
Finally, we come to Wayne Bennett. Cowboys coach Paul Green played under Bennett in his final season in 2004, and remained at the Broncos as a halves coach until 2008. Penrith coach Anthony Griffin got his start under Bennett in 2008, coaching the club’s Under 20s. Current Dragons coach Paul McGregor was an assistant to Steve Price at St George Illawarra in 2014, who was himself an assistant to Bennett from 2009 to 2011. Which leaves us with Tigers boss Jason Taylor, Roosters coach Trent Robinson, and the great Bulldogs coach, Des Hasler. To get the last three takes a little more work.
Taylor and Robinson both got their starts under Brian Smith; Taylor at the Eels where he both played and coached under Smith between 2001 and 2006, and Robinson at the Newcastle Knights, where he was Smith’s assistant from 2007 to 2009, before following Smith to the Roosters. Now, Brian Smith himself began his coaching career in 1978 at the Newtown Jets, where he coached the club’s Under 23’s, serving under the head coach at the time, who was a fellow by the name of Paul Broughton. Broughton is perhaps best known for his work towards the founding of the Gold Coast Titans. But long before that, Broughton spent a year coaching at Brisbane Brothers in 1974. And that Brothers team featured a lanky winger by the name of Wayne Bennett.
Which leaves us with Hasler. Long before Jason Taylor arrived at the Eels, Smith had another assistant by the name of Peter Sharp, during 1997-98. This same Peter Sharp would leave the Eels to take up a position coaching Manly in 1999, where he remained (in both Manly and Northern Eagles forms) until 2003. During this tenure, from 2001 until 2003 his assistant was, you guessed it, current Bulldogs coach Des Hasler.
A tale of two Kevins
After being hugely successful in the 1990s, Kevin Bacon drifted into relative obscurity in the early 2000s, before enjoying something of a recent career renaissance. Does this necessarily mean then that the Canberra Raiders are about to share in a similar patch of success? Almost certainly not, since Kevin Walters and Kevin Bacon are not actually connected in any way whatsoever. Well, they’re almost not connected in any way whatsoever. You see, Kevin Walters played alongside Ian Roberts for Australia from 1991 to 1993. Ian Roberts was in Superman Returns with Kevin Spacey. Kevin Spacey starred in The Usual Suspects with Jaime H Campos. And Jaime H Campos was in Apollo 13. With Kevin Bacon.